'Fair Game' gets some things about the Valerie Plame case right, some wrong

By Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010

The movie "Fair Game," which arrived in theaters on Friday, promises to once again polarize politicians, pundits and the Washington power structure. Should we have invaded Iraq? Was Joe Wilson a true whistleblower? Did the White House exaggerate evidence of an imminent danger posed by Saddam Hussein? Was Valerie Plame really a covert CIA operative, or just a secretary?

Watching "Fair Game" is like unsealing a time capsule from 2002 to '06 and finding it full of yellowcake uranium, aluminum tubes, leaked classified memos, grand jury testimony and the ghost of Robert Novak. Washington denizens of the time -- Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, George W. Bush -- emerge in supporting roles from the swamp of disputed memory. In overheated, actual cable news clips, the politics of the Iraq war play out again, often in petty and exceedingly personal fashion.

"Inspired by true events," the film promises, and it delivers them in a compressed form, with considerable emotional impact, helped along by strong performances by Sean Penn (as Wilson) and Naomi Watts (as his wife), and every filmmaker's friend: dramatic license. But just how faithful is the Hollywood version to history -- when ideology and melodrama threaten to cloud the retelling?

As reporters who covered the Plame CIA leak affair, as it came to be known, we compared the reality of what unfolded in Washington in that era against the events that the screenwriters and director of "Fair Game" boiled into their narrative. The movie holds up as a thoroughly researched and essentially accurate account -- albeit with caveats. It's told from the point of view of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, upon whose separate memoirs the script is based. The CIA and the Bush White House will clearly disagree with its telling of events.

But all politics aside, "Fair Game's" emotional core is how the leak shook the couple's marriage, and the characters portrayed by Penn and Watts will resonate with anyone who knows the real figures. Valerie Plame Wilson could not by law talk to screenwriters about her covert career -- "she would never betray the agency," director Douglas Liman said -- so her part of the story had to be constructed from other sources, including former intelligence officers. Aware that he was dealing with "people trained in subterfuge," Liman said he is confident he still captured the classified activities accurately.

But the couple opened their marital struggles to intimate examination. They describe their meetings with Liman and screenwriters as akin to therapy sessions, and the events on the screen sometimes painful to relive.

'An agency operative'

First, a primer. Flash back to February 2002, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney questioned his CIA briefer about some intelligence claiming that Iraq sought to buy 500 tons of uranium ore from Niger to build a nuclear weapon. The agency sent Joe Wilson, a former ambassador with experience in both Baghdad and Niger, to run down the allegation, originally obtained by the Italian intelligence service from a note that turned out to be a forgery. Wilson debunked it.

Nevertheless, almost a year after Wilson's trip, with U.S. troops already assembling in the Persian Gulf, Bush talked forebodingly in his 2003 State of the Union speech of a British intelligence report about Hussein seeking "significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

On July 6, 2003, with the war underway, a furious Wilson went public, penning a New York Times op-ed, appearing on "Meet the Press" and going on the attack in The Washington Post. For that time, his claim was explosive: the administration had twisted intelligence as a pretext for the invasion. The White House responded through its senior officials, disclosing the identity of his CIA operative wife to at least five journalists as a way to discredit Wilson, pushing the story to reporters that Valerie sent her husband on the trip to Niger to help his career as a business consultant.

Only Novak, in his syndicated column, took the extra step of disclosing her name: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," he wrote. "Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report."

Any film that examines the fragility of reputations will shape characters to fit storytelling techniques. It has to adopt a point of view rather than present an encyclopedic account. The first-draft script for "Fair Game" was so packed with episodic detail that it would have run to a stultifying three hours, Liman says. It was pared to 104 minutes.

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